It is an insidious and almost invisible disease that is running rampant through our cities, suburbs and country towns but which suddenly becomes horribly visible at times, like Kobi’s death.
Needless to say, domestic violence is not so invisible to social workers and other people working in the area of child protection, emergency services and family dispute resolution. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, one in six Australian women, and one in 16 Australian men, have been subjected, since the age of 15, to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous cohabiting partner.
Our own Centacare Catholic Family Services is at the forefront of dealing with domestic violence, both in supporting victims and developing prevention programs such as the Power to End Violence, a partnership with the Port Adelaide Football Club to educate boys about respectful relationships.
In March this year Centacare’s executive manager of Strategy, Research & Evaluation Jonathon Louth addressed a Senate inquiry about the importance of primary prevention initiatives.
In the past, priests and religious Sisters and Brothers have often provided practical assistance and a safe haven for members of families in crisis. I interviewed a woman recently who told me if it hadn’t been for the advice and help of her local priest back in the 70s, she would never have had the courage to leave her abusive husband.
And there are many stories of women who found refuge in a convent in the days when there was no such thing as a women’s shelter. Such support is provided today by not only Centacare but also Vinnies, Catherine House and the Hutt St Centre.
But as a Church we have been relatively silent about this issue. It is rarely mentioned at a leadership level, nor in the parish context such as during Mass, despite the fact that it is highly likely there are families in our communities who are at risk of, or experiencing, domestic violence. Sadly most of our Catholic schools have had firsthand experience of the devastating impact of domestic violence.
Our parishes should be places where victims of verbal and physical abuse feel safe and supported but we can’t do this unless we are talking about the problem and being equipped and trained to respond.
I feel uneasy when I hear a priest naively talking about husbands and wives resolving their petty differences when there is every chance someone sitting in the pews is facing an intolerable situation on the home front.
Pope Francis has taken a lead in this regard by declaring on a number of occasions that domestic violence is not something to which we can turn a blind eye.
He has deferred to Canon law in saying that in cases where a spouse and children are experiencing violence and abuse, separation becomes ‘inevitable’ and even ‘morally necessary’ for their safety.
Perhaps this is a given for many people, including priests, but it wouldn’t hurt for it to be mentioned in a homily every now and then. It might just give someone the courage to speak up, especially if they are experiencing, or know of someone experiencing spiritual or religious abuse.
Some of the practical steps that parishes could take include distributing resources on domestic violence, hosting workshops for parish teams and promoting preventative programs and services for those seeking help. Parishes could also connect with the local school to see if there are families in the area who need support.
As people of faith, we cannot remain silent. We need to play a part in raising awareness and understanding of domestic violence and the ways it can be prevented.
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